HL Deb 04 March 2004 vol 658 cc774-6

11.23 a.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What further policies they have for reducing loyalist and republican paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, the Government are determined to root out paramilitary activity. The Organised Crime Task Force has been established to develop a multi-agency approach to organised crime, which has a significant paramilitary involvement. The Assets Recovery Agency seizes the assets of those paramilitaries who profit through crime. The Independent Monitoring Commission was established to monitor and report on paramilitary activity as part of its overall remit.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord President for that reply. What are the relative numbers of loyalist as opposed to republican outrages over the past year? What arrests and charges have been made subsequently by the Police Service of Northern Ireland over the same period of loyalists and republicans respectively? Given the likely discrepancy between these two figures, what further action in addition to the Organised Crime Task Force will the Government take to alleviate the situation?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, in 2003, eight murders were attributed to loyalist groups and two to republicans; 44 bombing incidents and 139 shootings to loyalists; 28 bombing incidents and 77 shootings to republicans. Of the shootings, 154 were so-called punishment attacks, with 99 attributed to loyalists and 55 to republicans. In addition, there were 148 paramilitary assaults, with 102 attributed to loyalists and 46 to republicans.

The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, also asked me about arrests and charges. On arrests, the information is not readily available. We are looking at this, and I am happy to write to noble Lords on the matter. On charges, in 2003, 121 persons were charged under the Terrorism Act 2000; 91 were loyalists and 29 were republicans. One as yet is unattributed. Of these, eight loyalists and one republican were charged with murder, and nine Loyalists and two republicans with attempted murder.

Lord Rogan

My Lords, will the Government formally recognise that these paramilitary activities are a cancer in society and are hindering, if not in fact completely stopping, political progress in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rogan. The Government have made it absolutely clear that all paramilitary activity must stop. It is clear from the event of a week last Friday that progress is not possible without the cessation of paramilitary activity.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, in her Answer my noble friend mentioned the Assets Recovery Agency, which I believe has been in operation for just over a year. Could she say anything about how successful that agency has been?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I think that the agency has been in existence now for some 18 months. Its success in stripping criminals of their ill-gotten gains has been very good indeed, and I congratulate the assistant director on his contribution in the fight against organised crime in Northern Ireland. It is currently dealing with 20 live investigations, with combined assets of around £8 million. In six of these cases, the agency has been successful in freezing or pursuing through taxation the value of almost £2.75 million, which includes freezing assets last week in excess of £500,000.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, is the Lord President aware that recently the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland told a meeting of the Policing Board that republican and loyalist terrorist groups were ignoring the demands of the British and Irish Governments for the cessation of paramilitary activity, and furthermore that the IRA has carried out more than 50 punishment beatings and shootings over the past year. Does she agree with me—I am sure that she does not—that so far the Government's efforts to contain this have been totally ineffective? What will she do, and what will the Government do, to start to put more realism into the fight against paramilitaries in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I am aware of the comments that were made by the Chief Constable. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, is right—I do not agree with him. As the noble Lord is aware, we have sought to look at these issues in the round. There has been some pressure on the Government, as the noble Lord knows, with respect to our assessment of the ceasefire arrangements of various paramilitary organisations. We do not make a judgment on the basis of individual incidents. Of course, the incident on 23 February does not sit well with the statements that were made by the IRA and Sinn Fein last October. We are well aware of that.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the prime difference between republican and loyalist terrorist groups is that republicans are protected by being behind the front of a recognised political party? Have the Government had any help from Mr Adams or Mr McGuinness by way of information about the organisation and activities of their private army?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will be well aware that the Government have been engaged in discussions with respect to the Belfast agreement and the review process with all the parties. We will continue to do our best to bring cessation to paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. We are well aware of the impact that this is having on our ability to make progress in Northern Ireland. We want to see a cessation and the people of Northern Ireland want lasting peace.